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Teaching Magnum: What we can learn from Magnum Photos

By Abigail Cain

“Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
“Nicaragua. Matagalpa. Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard.” 1978 © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

Photojournalist Susan Meiselas broke tradition when she photographed the “people’s revolt” in Nicaragua in color. In 1981, black and white was still the accepted medium in which to depict conflict. Yet, she described the choice as best capturing “the vibrancy and optimism of the resistance.”

Learn more about Meiselas’s photograph and how it influenced Donna DeCesare, award-winning documentary photographer and University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of Journalism. DeCesare writes about this and other images from the current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, noting their impact on her photography and teaching.

Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on display at the Ransom Center from September 10 through January 5, explores the evolution of Magnum Photos from print journalism to the digital age, revealing a global cooperative in continual flux, persistently exploring new relationships between photographers, their subjects, and their viewers.

On this Thursday, September 26 at 7 p.m., DeCesare speaks about her new book Unsettled/Desasosiego, which explores the effects of decades of war and gang violence on the lives of youths in Central America and the United States. A book signing follows.

DeCesare was recently honored with a Maria Moors Cabot Prize from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean.

Related content:

“Photojournalism in War Zones”: An audio interview with Donna DeCesare

From the Archivist: Creating access to the Magnum Photos collection

By Mary Alice Harper

Photographic Archivist Mary Alice Harper works with the Magnum Photos Collection. Photo by Linda Briscoe Myers.
Photographic Archivist Mary Alice Harper works with the Magnum Photos Collection. Photo by Linda Briscoe Myers.
As is the case with any incoming collection, the Magnum Photos collection came with its own unique set of challenges. Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman and I have worked to develop and implement a strategy for making the collection accessible to researchers in a timely and organized manner.

Creating the preliminary inventory
The agreement between MSD Capital, the owner of the collection, and the Ransom Center places the Magnum collection at the Center for at least five years and stipulates the photographs be made available. Desiring to open the collection as quickly as possible, the curator and I devised a two-phase approach for cataloging it.

The first phase was to translate Magnum’s original, complexly coded spreadsheet into a standardized preliminary box-level inventory. Working with Magnum’s archivist, Matt Murphy, I organized the materials in such a way that the arrangement reflects Magnum’s various filing systems and simultaneously unites them. As a result, the materials are divided into the following five series: Photographers (photographs by Magnum photographers); Personalities (photographs of persons of note, from movie stars to world leaders); Subject (a broad selection of topics designated by Magnum); Geographic (photographs arranged by geographic location); and Magnum (photographs of Magnum photographers, agency staff, newspaper clippings, and non-Magnum photographs used for special projects).

The Personalities series of the original spreadsheet provided only name ranges for these boxes (e.g., Rodgers to Roosevelt). So throughout the spring, Jillian Patrick, an undergraduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, meticulously listed the personality’s name on each folder contained within the 200 boxes. Assistant Photographic Archivist Nicole Davis and I then spent more than one month editing that list and entering the Library of Congress’s authorized form of each personality’s name when available. When not available, we devised name forms according to the second revision of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. This proved challenging, given the creative spelling and reverse order of various names found on Magnum’s folders. All original folder headings were maintained in the inventory, but references to the authority form of each name are also provided.

With the six-month anniversary of the collection’s arrival fast approaching, I converted the preliminary inventory into Encoded Archival Description, making it fully accessible and searchable online. The name authority work for all personalities is not complete, but 84 percent of the boxes are currently listed at the folder-level in the online version of the preliminary inventory. In the coming months, a revised version of the finding aid, with the Personalities series completed, will be posted online.

The future
In January, I hope to begin the second phase of cataloging the collection, which should take 12 months. The end result will be a detailed archival finding aid and a searchable database enabling researchers to locate all prints by any photographer in the collection.

Magnum Archive Collection Comes to the Ransom Center

By David Coleman

Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman unpacks materials from the Magnum archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman unpacks materials from the Magnum archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman shares his thoughts on the Magnum Archive Collection coming to the Center. At that same link, view a video of Magnum Director Mark Lubell discussing the significance of the Magnum Archive Collection.

The roster includes more than 95 photographers who would, on their own, make up a definitive who’s who list of photography for the past six decades. More significantly, however, they compose what is perhaps the most recognizable single organization in 20th-century photography: Magnum. Magnum has never been the largest photo agency, but for more than 60 years the cooperative’s notoriously exclusive process of membership has forged an ever-changing band of photographers who are dedicated to communicating through images taken with a unique eye.

Magnum was established to afford some independence for its member photographers from the most controlling and limiting aspects of the media industry, and this freedom and flexibility has allowed the photographers to remain with a particular story, rather than having to fly from hot spot to hot spot like many magazine photographers. Indeed, Magnum’s hallmark has always been the depth with which its photographers have captured their subjects—operating as much or more in what might be termed a “documentary” sphere than one of pure photojournalism. In recent decades, that sphere has further broadened to include elements of art and a self-conscious personal expression. Yet Magnum’s overall purpose of revealing the complex world to itself has remained unchanged.

The nearly 200,000 images now housed at the Ransom Center include iconic as well as lesser-known images by these masters of photography, covering historic events and celebrations, political figures and movie stars, intense studies of urbanism and humanity, and documents of war, terror, murder, and atrocity. The depth of coverage by individual photographers is often multiplied by the number of photographers that cover a particular event or figure. For example, looking through the Martin Luther King, Jr. box, we find images taken by Bob Adelman, René Burri, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Leonard Freed, Burt Glinn, Erich Hartmann, Bob Henriques, Hiroji Kubota, Danny Lyon, and Costa Manos.

The Ransom Center is delighted to have been chosen by MSD Capital to safeguard a substantial and unique piece of history. We look forward to joining in partnership to further Magnum’s future by protecting and promoting the study of its history.

In talking with Mark Lubell, Director of Magnum Photos, about the many photographers who have been part of the cooperative, I was struck by his description of them as “visual authors.” Given the Ransom Center’s broad range of holdings of the greatest writers, poets, and playwrights, as well as photographers and other visual artists, we expect that our newest “authors” will find a nurturing home here. If we consider the humanities to be the serious contemplation of the human condition, we could certainly not find a more appropriate collection to welcome than the Magnum archive.